Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence American privacy concerns go back as far as the country's origins. Today, in the wake of major revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency's surveillance, polls show that feelings are still mixed.
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Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence

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Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence

Privacy Past And Present: A Saga Of American Ambivalence

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

On Friday, the sun was shining here in Washington, D.C., as tourists strolled the gravel paths of the National Mall. And up in Franklin Square by the White House, locals on lunch break filled the benches and ledges. We went out and asked people a simple question: What personal information would you be willing to give up in the name of national security?

ARVIS LEIGHTON: Assuming it's going to be used by agencies and they'll - it won't get out, it'll be protected, not a lot. I'm - I like my privacy. I don't want people knowing where I'm going, what I'm doing and who I'm talking to.

FRED METZGER: It's getting a little bit scary, actually, that more people than should know know what I'm doing.

AMANDA MUNSEL: Once you start giving certain information in the name of national security, when does it stop?

GERALD PERIMAN: I don't do anything to protect it. I feel like it's worthless. Because I'm only one man, and this is against the United States government.

LYDEN: The voices of Arvis Leighton, Fred Metzger, Amanda Munsel and Gerald Periman - all sharing their thoughts on today's cover story: the present, the past and the future of privacy in America.


LYDEN: Americans have worried about being watched since the colonials lit a candle and put quill to paper. Even in the wake of the massive new revelations from the National Security Agency, polls show we've got mixed feelings. Fox News, CBS News and Gallup all find that more than half of all Americans don't approve of the NSA's collecting our phone and Internet records. Young Americans profess to value their privacy even more, and yet feel just as ambivalent as older generations when asked about the NSA activity, which brings us back to Franklin Square.

Michael Lisman says that in this era of Internet sharing, he just assumes people are watching and collecting his information.

MICHAEL LISMAN: So, yes, there's certainly things I don't necessarily want the NSA to find out about me, but I don't know how to stop them, so I just try not to do those things.

LYDEN: When we asked if he did anything to actively protect his information, he just laughed and shook his head.

LISMAN: I think once I tried to find the privacy button on Facebook. That was about it.

LYDEN: And not everyone opposes the NSA surveillance anyway. According to those same three polls, about 40 percent of Americans are comfortable with the agency's tactics. That includes Dakota Beach and Toni Robertson, who outright approve of them.

DAKOTA BEACH: I think that you have an obligation to all the citizens in this country, as a citizen of America, to share any information that's going to be able to help the government keep our country safe.

TONI ROBERTSON: You know, in order for us to be protected, they have to take whatever measures are necessary.


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) I want security, yeah, and I want it at any cost, oh, now.

LYDEN: Well, that's Otis Redding's opinion. On the other hand, there's this guy.

DR. LARRY HUNTER: I'm not sure that much of my information is needed for security. And if there is a need for mine, I'd like to know why.

LYDEN: That's Dr. Larry Hunter. Now, today, Larry Hunter is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. But back in 1984, most of us were blissfully unaware of anything like email, and Google hadn't even been invented. One man looked into the future, though, and didn't like what he was seeing. Larry Hunter, then a grad student studying computer science.

HUNTER: I was doing daily life online then. I had friends that I emailed back and forth with. In 1984, that was pretty rare.

LYDEN: And that's when Hunter, a child of the Nixonian '70s, made a realization. It wasn't the Orwellian camera-in-the-bedroom that Americans needed to worry about.

HUNTER: But instead, all the stuff we do in public - when I go out and I buy something at the store or I make a phone call - all that stuff can be analyzed in such a way that it really tells a lot about who I am and what I think.

LYDEN: So Larry Hunter wrote an essay. He outlined the possibilities of data collection in a paperless society. The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information, he wrote. Larry Hunter was, in 1984, talking about what we now call social media, information we willingly share. The next year, his essay was published in The Whole Earth Review. And looking back now, it's impressively prescient.

HUNTER: Well, I got some of the names of things wrong, but I was pretty close.

LYDEN: He'll admit there is something in which he fell really short, and that was how to stop the privacy invasion. He and a friend did have one idea.

HUNTER: We thought that people ought to inherently own the information about them and have some property interest in it, so they could control what's done with it. And I think it's too late for that. The Googles and Microsofts of the world would lobby against that so fiercely that it really has no chance.

LYDEN: As for Dr. Hunter and his friends now...

HUNTER: We're a little cautious. Some of us like to use encryption to talk to each other so that it's a little harder to listen in on us. I still believe almost everything that was in that original 1984 piece.

LYDEN: As it turns out, Dr. Hunter's concerns about privacy are not new. Let's go back to that colonist, the sheet of paper, the quill pen and, of course, a knock at the door.

NEIL RICHARDS: If you want to talk about privacy, what would be less private than having a platoon of Redcoats living in your house, eating your food, listening to your conversations?

LYDEN: That's Neil Richards. He's a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. And he says that Americans have feared for our privacy for longer than we've called ourselves Americans. And, yes, he is from England.

RICHARDS: You can even view the Puritans as wanting a kind of privacy, a privacy of conscience from the state. But in the Constitution itself, the quartering of soldiers, the execution of general warrants all have to do with the privacy of the home and the privacy of papers. And though the Constitution doesn't use the word privacy, the separation of individuals and their information and their homes and their persons from the state is a theme that runs throughout the Bill of Rights.

LYDEN: That was even true at the beginning of, say, the camera age.

RICHARDS: That's right. Privacy as a theme in American law, and really in American public discussion, arose in 1890. Louis Brandeis, the famous Supreme Court justice, when he was a young lawyer, wrote an article in The Harvard Law Review complaining about the intrusions that the new snap cameras were having upon the affairs of the great and the good.

LYDEN: You know, many people would say that the history of the U.S. when it comes to privacy is also about the history of the press itself. But by the 1960s, that had become a very sort of embattled relationship. What happened in terms of collecting information along about the 1960s?

RICHARDS: Lots of things happened in the '60s. On the one hand, you had the growth of premodern computers, what they then called databanks. Today, we'd call it a database. There was a great amount of social anxiety. Newsmagazines on hour-long prime time on CBS about the dangers posed by databanks. At the same time, you have the Supreme Court handing down cases on obscenity possession and also on wiretapping, protecting privacy to read and privacy to talk with one's confidants over the phone.

And then, of course, President Nixon, the great villain, I suppose, in the story of American privacy, recording conversations at the Oval Office, authorizing break-ins to get papers and records of his political enemies. So right after Nixon's resignation, there was great political push to have privacy laws. So we see the Privacy Act, which regulates data held by the government. They were going to extend it to private sector data, but never quite got around to it.

LYDEN: Coming up to the present, did 9/11 change our sense of giving the government permission to snoop?

RICHARDS: Immediately, it certainly did. I can remember living in Washington at the time. And even committed civil libertarians would say, just give the government what they want. We're terrified. People are dying. We're afraid. I think we're ambivalent about the issue that we call privacy. On the one hand, we want to be safe from crime and from terrorism. On the other, we want to be able to share information on Facebook. We want to be able to talk on the phone. We use cloud services. On the other, we actually do feel violated when people are listening to our conversations or reading our emails or getting our reading list from the library.

The challenge that we're facing is how to strike the right balance. Realizing that information is never or rarely purely private, but at the same time, perfect security is also equally impossible.

LYDEN: Neil Richards of Washington University in St. Louis. As to the future of privacy, well, maybe we'll have to learn to live with NSA surveillance, says Roberto Baldwin, a writer for Wired. But only if we continue to communicate in the loosey-goosey way we have been.

ROBERTO BALDWIN: There are ways around being eavesdropped on by the government, but it's also a little bit of a pain.

LYDEN: Hmm, I'm up for a little pain. You wrote a little article for Wired about this. And, you know, if it means that I can go a little further and keep my privacy, I would like to learn how to avoid the government's unblinking eye, OK? Where do I begin?

BALDWIN: Well, the first thing you're going to want to do is your smartphone or your cellphone that you have now, leave it at home, smash it, throw it in the fireplace, do something with it, because your calls, while they may or may not be able to listen to what you're saying, but they are being tracked. So what you can do is you can go down and you can get a burner. If you've ever watched "The Wire," you may know about burners. But they're phones you can purchase from an electronics store that you pay with cash; it doesn't have any record of who you are when you're using it.

LYDEN: Now, wait just a minute here. I just bought an iPhone 5. I have to smash it?

BALDWIN: Well, you don't have to smash it, but just don't use it.


BALDWIN: Don't take it with you either because they can track you with the GPS.

LYDEN: Use the burner.

BALDWIN: They can use cellphone towers to triangulate your position. They know where you are at all times.

LYDEN: And how's my mother supposed to reach me?

BALDWIN: Well, you give her the number, but you're going to want your mom to get a burner as well.


BALDWIN: So that's the thing, because they can still track your mom's calls. Your mom is still calling this number and then they - maybe they could figure out that, you know, you live in that area. And then it's all for naught. Everyone you know has to buy a burner.

LYDEN: What about, you know, email? Is my email safe?

BALDWIN: Are you using Gmail?

LYDEN: Who isn't?

BALDWIN: Well, OK, stop using Gmail.

LYDEN: Oh, great.

BALDWIN: You need to use something like Hushmail. And while you're using your email, you need to use it through a browser that is using something like Tor. Tor - it was actually developed by the U.S. Navy, and allows you to send encrypted messages. And people can't find out where those messages are coming from. They won't be able to track your IP address. So you can go to the Tor website and download their special Tor browser.

So you have to use a special browser. Don't use Flash, don't watch videos, don't do anything, because that will give away your position. And then from there, you can use Hushmail or some other secretive email account that you can find.

LYDEN: I wish you could see the sad face I'm making right now.


BALDWIN: And then at the end of the day, the person on the other end, if they just print it out and hand it to the government, it's all for naught.

LYDEN: I was hoping you could tell me that if I just wrapped tinfoil around my laptop, I'd be protected.

BALDWIN: Well, that's - you're just going to get people to look at you. Who's that lady? We should be tracking her.

LYDEN: Roberto Baldwin. He's a writer for Wired magazine, and he joined us from member station KQED in - where else - San Francisco. Thank you, Roberto.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

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